Monday, March 24, 2014

Better than the Book: No Country for Old Men

I'm no fan of Cormac MacArthy. He gets a lot of accolades from literary types, but I just don't like his prose style. That being said, his book No Country for Old Men has a paragraph so absolutely right it may as well have been written by Hemingway:

He ate in a restaurant with the white tablecloths and waiters in white jackets. He ordered a glass of red wine and a porterhouse steak. It was early and the restaurant was empty save for him. He sipped the wine and when the steak came he cut into it and chewed slowly and thought about his life.

It works better if you've read the eighty-five pages that lead up to it. At that point, Llewelyn has made some pretty bad choices. And as far as I can tell, there's just no way to adapt that sentence to film. It doesn't work, cinematically speaking. Yeah, you can show us a guy sitting in that restaurant, but the details will be lost. There's no way to call attention to the white jackets or table cloths without forcing it. The visuals wouldn't be right. But in prose, it's perfect.

With that out of the way: I love the Coen Brothers film. Well-shot, well-edited, great performances, and all that. McCarthy's prose style didn't bug me the way it did in some of his other work (a prose style that so very many praise), but it just can't compete with Roger Deakins' cinematography.

It's not that I dislike the book. It's an interesting meditation on the philosophy of men in a certain position, of a certain disposition. One complaint I had is that it's a little bit too long. There's a lengthy passage during which Llewelyn picks up a young girl and they drive together to the motel where the climax takes place (off-screen in both the book and in the film). The Coens cut the entire character, the residue of which shows up in the woman who talks to Llewelyn at the motel pool. They even streamline some of the scenes toward the end. After Chigur goes to confront Llewelyn's wife Carla Jean, McCarthy flat-out tells us that she was murdered. The Coens know this isn't necessary. The way Chigur looks at the bottom of his shoe when he leaves the house tells us all we need to know.

My friend Matt Guschwan likened this to a horror movie, and I think the comparison works. Take that scene when Llewelyn is in the hotel the first time Chigur finds him. Chigur is walking down the hall, following the signal from the transponder, and all we hear are the footsteps, then the turning of a lightbulb, then the door lock flying out of the door. It's horror, in a way that the book doesn't aspire to be, and it works.

No Country for Old Men showed me that MacArthy could be a very good writer. The Coen brothers took that and made the best possible movie from it.

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